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Be Prepared: Develop Your Systems, Procedures and Protocols Before a Crisis

March 11, 2014

Today’s post is courtesy of Susan Shelby, FSMPS, CPSM, president and CEO of Rhino PR. As president and CEO of Rhino Public Relations, Susan helps A/E/C clients establish and launch successful PR programs closely aligned with each client’s unique goals and objectives. Questions or comments? E-mail her at, follow her on Twitter at @RhinoPRBoston or visit

The phone rings and on the other end is a reporter asking about an incident that just happened involving your company. Would you know how to respond?

 A crisis or unexpected event that focuses media attention on your firm can be disruptive to your normal business operations and have a real or perceived negative impact upon your company.

A detailed crisis communications plan will help you evaluate the scope and level of a crisis while establishing a uniform communications system, procedures and protocols to help your company deal effectively with an unexpected emergency situation.

The goal is to provide accurate, consistent information – to the press, employees, clients, partners, etc. – in an effort to protect and preserve your firm’s image and reputation. If you do not provide information, the story can take on a life of its own – and not always an accurate one.

A detailed plan will outline who to alert, how to develop and implement your firm’s response to the crisis, and provide staff with the tools they need to handle the situation.

Whether you hire someone to develop a crisis communications plan for you or handle it in-house, you should have a crisis communications plan in place before a crisis affects your company. In a nutshell, a crisis communications plan tells everyone exactly what to do when a crisis occurs, specifically:

Who’s in Charge?

The crisis response team (CRT) is responsible for handling all aspects of a crisis situation. This team should include your president, director of marketing, and legal counsel.

One person should be assigned the role of point person. This is the person to whom all press calls will be routed in the event of a crisis, and their information should be posted on your web site as the media contact.

 Create a CRT contact sheet with the contact information for each member of this team so you know how to reach everyone in the event of a crisis. This information should be included in the crisis communications plan and distributed to everyone on the CRT. Be sure to give a copy to your receptionist as he/she may be the first one to field a call from the press regarding a crisis. Remember to update it on a regular basis.

 Dealing with the Media

An important component of any crisis communications plan is outlining how your firm will deal with the media. It’s not a bad idea to hold a practice session with your assigned spokesperson to make sure they are ready to handle the inevitable flurry of requests for an interview and/or comment.

 Your plan should include guidelines for dealing with the media, such as:

  •  Return the call as quickly as possible. You can’t influence a story once the deadline has passed.
  • If a reporter calls, and you’re not prepared to be interviewed, assure them you will call back before their deadline. Don’t feel compelled to be interviewed on the spot. It is entirely acceptable to call them back once you’ve had a chance to gather the facts you need.
  • The same is true if a TV crew shows up unexpectedly at your office. Escort them to an area where they will not have access to staff and clients, and have someone stay with them until you’re ready to speak with them.
  • Don’t flatly refuse to answer. If something is too controversial to discuss, explain as much as you can. “No comment” sounds as though you’re hiding something.
  • Until you have confirmed information, don’t speculate on the cause of the emergency, the condition of people involved, the resumption of normal operations, the dollar value of losses, etc.
  • Answer truthfully. Don’t guess. If you don’t know the answer, offer to find out and tell the reporter you will get back to him or her.

 After the dust has settled

After the situation is under control, gather your CRT together and evaluate your response to the crisis. Ask yourselves what worked, what didn’t, and adjust your crisis communications plan accordingly.

 A crisis communications plan needs to be a living, breathing document and something you visit and update on a regular basis. Too many firms either don’t have a crisis communications plan or create one and stick it up on a shelf, gathering dust somewhere.

 The more up-to-date your crisis communications plan, the better prepared you will be to handle a crisis professionally and with minimum impact upon your firm.

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